Prague’s Ironing Ladies: Providing work from home for disadvantaged women

Photo: The official Facebook page of the Ironing Ladies

Jan Roháč and Martin Jůza are the co-founders of Ironing Ladies, a project launched over year ago employing women part-time who (for health reasons or the care of disabled family members) otherwise find it impossible to hold down a regular job. The project went from being ‘just an idea’ to becoming a sustainable business.

Martin Jůza and Jan Roháč, photo: Vimeo
I spoke to Martin Jůza, asking how the start-up began.

“The project was the result of a kind of experimentation. At a certain moment Jan Roháč and I shared uncertainty over what to do next, I had moved to Prague, he was finishing university, and so we considered different ideas until we came up with this one.”

In Czech, vyžehlit can refer to ironing but can also meaning to fix problems at home or at work – to iron out differences or problems; in the beginning, the project was quite different, wasn’t it?

“Honza got the idea for a community website called vyžehlit to where you could find the answer to any problem, from problems in relationships to where to buy a flower for a girl at midnight, if need be. We considered different inceptions and eventually the idea turned to ironing itself – the idea of employing first the unemployed but then ‘unemployable’ to iron. The process took around four and five months of research and we took out our first ads we were just looking for women who would be able to iron and gradually we picked up stories of women, who for one reason or another, were unable to make any extra money.”

Photo: The official Facebook page of the Ironing Ladies
That is an important distinction: who is unemployable?

“Mostly they were women who were taking care of children with disabilities, sometimes on their own, or who had their own health problems, which meant they were tied to the home and had to be there almost 24/7. Those who had suffered illness themselves received disability pensions, for example, but the sums in most cases are ridiculous. So, we opted for women who are stuck at home which made them suitable for this project.

“When we around in the early stages we travelled all over Prague to meet potential employees to talk to them. Many had past experience applying for work-from-home jobs which usually ended up being pyramid-style marketing gigs where they didn’t make anything; one woman told us she made five crowns after three months.”

Photo: The official Facebook page of the Ironing Ladies
Schemes, basically, which don’t work at all… Not the way out of the hole… When it was still in the development stage, did you receive any advice or encouragement?

“We got a lot of support, for example, we took part in the Social Impact Award where we were finalists. The SIA supports a lot of project in the idea and pre-development stages. We were finalists but we didn’t win because the jury didn’t think the project was really possible, which is funny looking back. There is a community around a co-working space which is called Impact Hub so that also helped a lot. We also got help from Juraj Kováč who helps young entrepreneurs gain traction or make progress.”

I’m curious, why didn’t the jury think the project would work?

Photo: The official Facebook page of the Ironing Ladies
“Most of the comments were that we didn’t have a proper business model and I think there was truth in that at that point, we were still looking for it. Today, though, I think we are reaching a milestone of sort because the number of orders has surpassed anything that we expected, so we facing restructuring the project. We need to re-organise behind the scenes. In the beginning stage, it was impossible to make money but we learned from some initial lessons in the first six months. The lessons weren’t painless; from the initial investment of 2000 euros we added another four and that money vanished in a month-and-a-half. We needed to work out where the mistakes were.”

These days you are getting more clients, a well-known bank, for example… How much of an attraction is it for a larger corporation that there is this social aspect?

Photo: The official Facebook page of the Ironing Ladies
“This aspect is a door-opener. We have a large advantage or edge as a result. We have a kiosk in this bank which employs 2,000 people twice a week and a company of 800. Our corporate clients are different from single clients, which are usually women at home who have a lot of clothes and items that need ironing and fulfil a 1,000 crown order minimum. With corporate clients the communication is a little different. That is new for us but we are excited to find a solution. All big corps now have CSR departments and those are the people we are talking to.”

The women who you have employed – the actual ironing ladies – they are not anonymous, which I think is a strong part of the business. You have also provided a personal touch – could you elaborate?

Photo: The official Facebook page of the Ironing Ladies
“If you place an order than of course you will receive your shirts and trousers on a hanger but other items are wrapped up almost like a Christmas present, in our business colours and with a small sticker who the order was ironed by, for example, Blanka, whose story you can read about at the website. That provides the final touch and connects the service user.” There are stories of a having a sick child, of having to fight; was there any one story which sticks out for you?

“This is just my personal view now, not as a representative of the company. For me it was one lady at the very beginning who was outstanding and worked very hard. Her husband’s cancer had come back, she herself was a cancer survivor and they had an 18-year-old mentally-challenged son who had stayed at the level of a one-year-old. At a moment of weakness, some ill religion got to her or some guru got to her and she departed. It was a harsh experience: you couldn’t really get involved and her attention was stolen away. It was hard to cope with and that was the most striking for me.”

Photo: The official Facebook page of the Ironing Ladies
When you are screening for employees, is it the case that there are people, with the best intentions, can’t be helped? I imagine that in order to uphold professional standards, it isn’t for everyone.

“The standard to meet is that the clothes be perfectly ironed. It’s not a charity, it is a professional service. There are returning customers who are happy with it. That is the primary criteria. Otherwise, the concept of employing ‘unemployable women’ has two side: we need them to be flexible, which they are since they are at home and that is one of the important aspects. It’s kind of an organic process finding the women. When my colleague Jan places an ad, we get around 150 responses but we only hire one or two.”

Photo: Patrycja Cieszkowska, FreeImages
How much are they paid and what do they gain which can’t be counted in crowns or euros?

“They get about 40 percent of each order. The best make around 300 euros a month. I was thinking about it: of course, money can be and always is – spent. So, in the past I have wondered, are we really helping them? What’s the point? But they want to feel useful and that they are part of society, that there is a virtual contact with the customers, sometimes they include a little card or personal touch. That is what we can help give them. As a whole, the project is not meant to be ‘profitable’ but sustainable.”

Do you have a word of advice for anyone starting out with similar ideas or projects?

“At the beginning, it can be important to be naïve. That can be a good thing. But then, you have to make a transition as soon as possible not to deny reality. Problems will appear. But if you identify them soon enough and avoid the mistake of pretending they don’t exist, a solution can always be found.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on October 29, 2014.